An unschooled religious zealot anoints himself king, takes as many wives as he wants and forms an army to protect his holy commune. He wields cultlike control over his followers. The authorities crack down: He's killed and mourned as a martyr.
It's the story of a tailor named John of Leyden, who espoused the heretical teachings of Anabaptism in Germany in the 1500s. It's also the story of Waco's David Koresh, who met his fiery end in 1993. But mainly it's the story of Joe Smith, a handsome country lad with an oversize ego who established one of America's most successful new religions in the 1830s.
Like others in history, Smith brewed God, sex and politics into a fatal mix, but his church prospered. The somewhat sanitized documentary "American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith" (tonight at 9 on WETA) attempts to explain why.
Sonorously narrated by Gregory Peck, "American Prophet" sketches a fascinating profile but it veers into hagiography. (The film was funded by the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, set up by the late Mormon hotel magnate.) We learn much about the persecution of Smith's sect, but little about its actual teachings. We are told how deeply Smith loved his wife, Emma, and how pure of heart he was--but we're not informed that he had, by some accounts, more than 30 wives while flatly denying he was a polygamist. (The program does acknowledge that he had "more than one" wife.)
The film also notes that Smith was frequently betrayed by those who once followed him; they even joined the anti-Mormon mobs that hunted him down. But we are left with little understanding of what, exactly, spurred their intense animosity for "Brother Joseph."
Maybe it was his sheer audacity. Smith gave the world a story of a resurrected Christ who comes to North America to preach to an ancient people who sailed here earlier from the Holy Land. Smith also brought forth an entirely new bible--"another testament of Jesus Christ"--that he claimed to have "translated" from ancient gold tablets he found in western New York state.
"American Prophet" strives to place Smith in historical context. A farmer's son, Smith grew up in an era of millennial fervor--the 19th century's Great Awakening--when many new sects were prophesying the imminent return of Christ. At 14, he said he took his Bible into the woods and was visited by both God and Jesus. He asked them which church he should join; they told him that all were practicing "incorrect doctrines" and that the true gospel would be revealed to him later.
"My story excited persecution," Smith would recall. Other preachers saw him as a competitor. But he was charismatic--6 feet tall, dazzling blue eyes--and at 23, he went to work interpreting the gold plates revealed to him by an angel he called Moroni. Smith hid the plates behind a sort of curtain as he dictated the new holy writ to a follower.
Three of Smith's flock later swore they saw the plates before Moroni retrieved them--but all later quit the church. (The documentary does not say why.) Detractors saw the so-called "golden bible" as nothing more than a product of Smith's imagination. "It is evidence of fraud, blasphemy and credulity," said the Rochester Daily Advertiser.
"American Prophet" relies effectively on such primary records--as well as gauzy slow-motion re-creations and voice-over narrations from diaries--to track the rising scorn for the Mormons and their pilgrimages from state to state. Non-Mormon historians and academics provide objective analysis, pointing out that Smith's followers were clannish and haughty. They called themselves "saints" and rarely engaged in commerce with the locals. They also tended to overwhelm the small towns where they settled, creating a threat to the political status quo.
In 1838, Missouri's governor signed an order allowing the militia to exterminate or expel Mormons "for the public good." Seventeen of the Latter-Day Saints were gunned down and Smith was imprisoned for several months. But he had God--and good looks--on his side.
"Joseph was a very remarkable man," said Gen. Moses Wilson. "I carried him into my house, a prisoner in chains, and in less than two hours my wife loved him better than she did me."
Smith's appeal also derived from his uniquely American spin on salvation: He claimed that this country would be the site of a New Jerusalem run by Christ. (By contrast, John of Leyden declared that his New Jerusalem would be in Muenster.)
"He was a radical preacher of extreme ideas," a Notre Dame University scholar says of Smith. "And he called people to extreme ways of living, dependent upon his authority."
The prophet established the holy city of Nauvoo, Ill., which he ruled as mayor, chief justice and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion, his own militia. He started a newspaper and in 1844 announced his candidacy for U.S. president, "a Western man with American principles."
But by merging church and state, Smith had breached a precious democratic principle. He also proved intolerant of dissent. When local apostates printed a newspaper calling Smith a polygamous Caligula who violated female followers--a charge not mentioned in the film--the prophet's army smashed and burned the presses. He declared martial law.
This incident provided the final spark that led to his demise at age 39. He and his brother, Hyrum, were summarily executed after they turned themselves in to face arrest warrants for inciting riot.
It's an edifying two hours, but the saga of Smith's life could have been far more gripping than this reverently rendered version. Smith saw himself and his flock as vital actors in a grand drama staged by the Almighty. In a sermon at Nauvoo, he claimed to have a more solid following than Christ himself--and to Hell with the dissenters.
"In all these affidavits, indictments, it is all of the Devil--all corruption. Come on! ye prosecutors! ye false swearers! All Hell, boil over! Ye burning mountains, roll down your lava! for I will come out on the top at last. I have more to boast of than ever any man had."
That quote speaks volumes about the man, but unfortunately you won't find it in "American Prophet."
CAPTION: "American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith" profiles the charismatic Mormon leader at 9 tonight on WETA.